Friday, December 24, 2010

"World of Khubilai Khan: Chinese Art in the Yuan Dynasty" Exhibition

Chabi, Royal consort of Khubilai Khan

Khubilai Khan

"World of Khubilai Khan: Chinese Art in the Yuan Dynasty" Exhibition
The long-awaited arrival of the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s The World of Khubilai Khan: Chinese Art in the Yuan Dynasty exhibition finally washed ashore on Manhattan Island in late-September, 2010 after many years of planning. The exhibition's manifest includes artworks dating from the pre-Song Dynasty period, the reign of Khubilai Khan and the Mongol Yuan Dynasty in China.

China’s history is rife with conquest and rule by many non-Chinese peoples including the Xixia (Tangut) 1038 -1127, the Liao 916-1125, the Jin Dynasty (Jurchen) 1115-1234 and the longest reigning of these outsiders, the Manchu, 1646 – 1912, who in large part emulated the Mongols.

The Great Wall had once again failed to keep out the "barbarians" from the North and now all China was under the command of the Mongols. Having reunified China after more than 350 years, Khubilai Khan founded the Yuan Dynasty, (1271 -1368) and essentially created the nation-state of China as we know it today, including founding the capital at Dadu (modern-day Beijing).

The triumph of the Mongols over the Chinese Song Dynasty caused tremendous cultural upheaval and heralded a period of dynamic change in several arenas of the arts in Yuan Dynasty China.

The Mongol ruling elite were seasoned connoisseurs of fine art, intuitive arbiters of taste, and renowned patrons of the arts throughout their massive empire, from Siberia to Europe. Having completed their epic conquest, Khubilai Khan and the Mongols took the time to savor the myriad delectations spread before them in a China that was now their richly appointed pleasure-garden.

After the fall of the Southern Song many demoralized Song court artists fled to self-imposed exile; yet many others sought out work at the Mongol court. On display are many extraordinary Yuan Dynasty art objects that were the fruits of the labors of Chinese artists, as well as those created by artists from Tibet, Nepal, Persia and Central Asia.

This subdued exhibition does not bring alive the Mongol presence in China as much as present a collection of extraordinary Yuan-period artworks along with a a mish-mash of others that are non-Yuan. The non-Yuan objects are from other dynasties, including the Xixia, Southern Song and Jin dynasties.

Although titled “The World of Khubilai Khan: Chinese Art in the Yuan Dynasty the Great Khan himself is generally missing-in-action in his namesake exhibition other than his striking regal portrait and close-by that of his royal consort, Chabi.

These two Yuan Dynasty paintings -- which are absolute masterpieces -- epitomize the clear distinctions of Mongol imperial aesthetic sensibility and character when compared to the portraits of Song Dynasty rulers.

Emperor Gaozong, Song dynasty, 1107-1187
(Not shown in exhibition) National Palace Museum, Taipei.

Empress Yang, Song Dynasty, 1162-1233
(Not shown in exhibition) National Palace Museum, Taipei.

Whereas in Song Dynasty court portraits the Song kings and queens tepidly look away from the viewer with enfeebled expressions, dull eyes and pale pallor; Khubilai Khan and Chabi are positively aglow in their portraits, with fearless, twinkling greenish-brown eyes, rosy cheeks and direct, engaging gazes.

The relationship between subject and viewer is transformed by this Mongol approach of straightforward visual engagement, which is quite unlike the Song expression of tepid disengagement.

This pivotal change in imperial portrait aesthetic clearly demonstrates Khubilai Khan's sure-handed ability in giving art direction to Chinese court portrait artists and his preference for a dynamic rendering of his regal likeness.

Khubilai Khan Hunting, 1280, Liu Guando. Fig. 267
(Not shown in exhibition) National Palace Museum, Taipei.

The hanging scroll showing Khubilai Khan hunting with Empress Chabi is not part of this exhibition, but is featured in the exhibition catalog. This particular painting conveys more about Khubilai's lifestyle than much of what is displayed in the "Daily Life" section of the exhibition.

Assuming that the "Daily Life" section is meant to illuminate Mongol imperial life, the viewer finds that there is scarce mention of Yuan Dynasty court life, and it is bereft of any details about the Mongol way of life during their reign in China.

The Mongol imperial hunt scroll painting would have deftly illustrated Khubilai Khan's personal lifestyle. The Mongol emperors in China retained their core cultural traditions of which hunting was an essential practice. Hunting remained a key part of the Mongol way of life during the Yuan Dynasty and was a fundamental training method for Mongol cavalry since the time of Chingiss Khan.

Marco Polo's eyewitness account of Khubilai Khan's daily life provides some critical details about how the emperor spent his time. Inclusion of Marco Polo's invaluable eyewitness account would have naturally been fitting for this exhibition, but is curiously omitted in exhibition wall texts and displays. Marco Polo however is cited in a few pages in the exhibition catalog.

This excerpt from Marco Polo's observations about Khubilai Khan's hunting practices tells us where he spent more than three months of his daily life: " You may take it for a fact that during three months which the Great Khan spends in the city of Khan-balik, that is December, January, and February, he has ordered that within a distance of sixty days' journey from where he is staying everybody must devote himself to hunting and to hunting and hawking...... When the Khan has spent the three months of December, January and February in the city of which I have spoken, he sets off in March and travels southward to within two days' journey of the Ocean. He is accompanied by fully 10,000 falconers and takes with him fully 5,000 gerfalcons and peregrine falcons and sakers in great abundance, besides a quantity of goshawks for hawking along the riversides."

The degree to which Khubilai Khan affected a sinicized image has long been a subject for debate amongst historians and bears scrutiny in the design of this exhibition.

A critical fact that should be made known to exhibition visitors is that Khubilai Khan preferred to sleep every night in a Mongolian ger instead of inside the royal palace. This essential facet of his daily existence is important evidence of his determination not to allow his Mongol way of life to be displaced by sinicization in keeping with the Yasa of Chingiss Khan which was Mongol customary law for "all people who live in felt tents."

One aspect of Mongol culture that remained unquestionably unchanged during the Mongol-China period was the Mongol-equestrian lifestyle and the Mongol love of horses. Equestrian art naturally blossomed during the Yuan Dynasty and Chinese artists dutifully produced a veritable encyclopedia of horse and rider art.

Chinese artists worked hard to please the Mongol court and so there is a large body of Yuan art that includes horses in such magnificent depictions as Ren Renfa's scroll painting titled, "Nine Horses."

Horse and Rider, Yuan Dynasty.

Nine Horses, Ren Renfa, Yuan Dynasty.

Cup and Saucer, Yuan Dynasty.
Cloth of Gold with Winged Lions and Griffins. Central Asia, 1240 - 1260.

There is representation of many important Mongol cultural contributions including the Mongol court’s introduction of Nasij cloth of gold made of silk and gold threads which is recognized as a Mongol innovation introduced to China during the Yuan period. The accompanying exhibition catalog introduces as to the Mongol Princess Sennge Ragi, a preeminent Mongol patron of the arts and sister of the Yuan emperors Wuzong and Renzong.

Bottle, Porcelain with underglaze copper red decoration.

The steady flow of traders, imperial court officers, and artisans between the Ilkhanid courts in Persia, the Chaghatay court in Central Asia and the Yuan court in China promoted an unprecedented degree of artistic and cultural cross-pollination which gave rise to newly developed hybrid artworks in Mongol-China. Blue and white Persian ceramics with their novel underglaze method took hold during the Yuan and became iconic symbols of Mongol influence on the arts of China.

Mongol imperial patronage strongly encouraged the performing arts and is given its due credit which helped carry stage performances to unprecedented heights and spread to southern China. Scores of performing troupes and hundreds of prominent actors resided in Dadu during the Yuan period.

Troupe of Actors in Performance, 1324. Minyingwang Hall , Shanxi Province.

Bodhisattva Avalokitshvara, 1282, Fig. 139

The Mongols introduced Indo-Himalayan style to China during the Yuan period. “Koden a grand son of Chinggis Khan…took the great scholar Kunga Gyaltsen, known as Sakya Pandita (1182 – 1251) to the Mongol capital at Liangzhou around 1245, ostensibly to encourage the popular understanding and acceptance of later Esoteric Buddhism, which was adopted as the state religion by Khubilai Khan in 1268. Sakya Pandita was accompanied to China by nephew Chogyal Phagspa (1235 – 1280).”(Excerpted from exhibition catalog.)

Phagspa Lama was commissioned to create a script that would be better for rendering the Mongolian language than Chinese script. This newly created script called Phagspa was much better suited to spoken Mongolian and Khubilai tried in vain to make it the official court script. Along with Phagspa was a young master artist from Nepal named Anige. He was named Director of All Artisan Classes in 1273 and trained many Chinese craftsmen in the Sakya style.
Bodhisattva Manjushri, c. 1305.

In matters of religion Khubilai Khan's rule championed religious tolerence and the Mongol court was a rich mix of peoples and religious beliefs. Khubilai oversaw vigorous debates between Buddhist and Daoist scholars and ultimately ruled in favor of the Buddhists. After Khubilai embraced Tibetan Buddhism, the Daoists were relegated to the backseat of the Mongol court for the duration of the Yuan Dynasty.

Not mentioned in the exhibition wall panel texts or catalog is the presence of shamanistic practices maintained at the Yuan court. The prevalence of Yuan Dynasty shamanistic court rituals is confirmed by the following passage from the book titled The Mongol Empire & its Legacy by Reuven Amitai-Preiss and David Morgan,It is clear that throughout the Yuan period, shamans continued to play an important role at the court of the imperial Mongols. The Yuan dynastic history (Yüan shih) in fact includes a section entitled “Dynastic customs and old rituals” (kuo-su chiu-li), much of which is devoted to descriptions of shamans presiding over seasonal ceremonies.”

Mandala of Yamantaka-Vajrabhairava,
ca. 1330–32, Yuan Dynasty

"Central Asian tapestry-weaving techniques and Indo-Himalayan imagery are here combined to stunning effect in this spectacular mandala, which was most likely used during an initiation ceremony at court. The donors at the bottom left are identified by Tibetan inscriptions as two of Khubilai Khan's great-grandsons: Tugh Temür, who reigned twice as emperor between 1328 and 1332, and his brother Khoshila, who reigned briefly in 1329. Their respective spouses are shown at the far right. This combination of individuals helps date the work to the period between 1330 and 1332." (Excerpted from MET website.)

Tugh Temür,and his brother Khoshila.

The World of Khubilai Khan: Chinese Art in the Yuan Dynasty is a good introduction to the rich cultural history of Mongol-China and hopefully it will inspire the viewer to look deeper into historical accounts to learn more about Khubilai Khan and the extraordinary history of the Mongols during their reign in China.

Sources: The History of Mongolia, Vol. 2 David Sneath & Christopher Kaplonski, pgs. 417,418,

The Mongol Empire & its Legacy by Reuven Amitai-Preiss and David Morgan, pg. 225




“Mongolia: Land of the Deer Stone”

“Mongolia: Land of the Deer Stone” by Elaine Ling

Gazing at “Mongolia: Land of the Deer Stone,” Elaine Ling’s new book of photographs is like visiting a distant portal that transports one into the past lives and living culture in the ancient landscapes of Mongolia.

This hardcover coffee table format book is printed on pleasing heavy stock with 116 black and white photos comprising sections devoted to studies of: The Land, Shamanistic Markings, Deer Stones, The Nomads, Ger Interiors, Buddhism, and Turkic Stones.

Wielding a large format 4x5 view camera with tack-sharp resolution, Ling’s photography establishes the timeless context of Mongolia's rugged terrain through galvanizing renderings of ancient canyons, gnarly rock formations, the Gobi Desert, the Flaming Cliffs and seemingly endless horizons. These stark studies make a strong case for Mongolia being the home of the quintessential, ancient Asian Badlands.

Ling’s images of the Shaman ovoos, sacred stone markers covered with horse skulls, branches and prayers scarves billowing in the wind evoke the spirits of the land through assemblages formed by the contributions of wayside travelers. The photographer’s intimate portrait of Mongolia’s famed Deer Stones somehow humanizes these stoic stone monoliths with their enigmatic faces and engaging eye-level gaze, seemingly at once alive and moribund.

Working with the challenging large format Polaroid film, Elaine Ling has assembled a series of Mongolian nomad family portraits of which several convey the warmth, nobility and enduring strength of the Mongolian people. The group photos inside the traditional gers carry the spark of collective joy at the moment of exposure.

“Mongolia: Land of the Deer Stone,” is a photographic bridge between the ancient and contemporary, anthropology study and personal guide taking us into the lives once lived whose living heritage lingers on today, timeless and eternal.

Lodima Press, Pennsylvania
Only 1000 copies printed,
US $ 98.00

Thursday, May 20, 2010

New York Times Article - Bitter Spring for Mongolia's Nomads
Photo: Gilles Sabrie for The New York Times

By ANDREW JACOBS - New York Times
Published: May 19, 2010

Winter Leaves Mongolians a Harvest of Carcasses

SOUTH HANGAY PROVINCE, Mongolia — They call it the zud, a prolonged period of heavy snows and paralyzing cold that adds to the challenges of living on a treeless expanse nearly the size of Alaska. But this year’s zud followed a punishing summer drought that stunted the grass and left Munkhbat Lkhagvasuren’s herds emaciated and his family in debt after borrowing money for fodder.

The yurt of a herder who lost 280 of his 300 animals over the winter.
The New York Times
About 17 percent of Mongolia’s livestock died, the United Nations says.

As the snow piled waist high this winter and temperatures plunged to 40 below zero, Mr. Lkhagvasuren crammed two dozen of the weakest goats and sheep into his yurt. The unlucky ones, more than 1,000 animals, froze to death in a great heap outside his front door. “I tried everything but could not fight against nature,” he said tearfully in a recent interview, the stench of rotting flesh overpowering despite a devilish wind. “I am broken and lost.”

Mongolia and its 800,000 herders are reeling from the worst winter that anyone can remember. According to United Nations relief officials, nearly eight million cows, yaks, camels, horses, goats and sheep died, about 17 percent of the country’s livestock. Even if the spring rains arrive soon, 500,000 more animals are expected to succumb in the coming weeks.

“This is not only a catastrophe for the herders but for the entire Mongolian economy,” said Akbar Usmani, the resident representative for the United Nations Development Program. “We expect the ripple effects for months and years to come.”

The last serious zuds, three consecutive harsh winters between 1999 and 2002, sent thousands of destitute nomads streaming into the capital, Ulan Bator. A decade later, their tattered yurts still crowd bleak neighborhoods on the city’s fringe as the former herders struggle to fit into the modern world. The United Nations estimates that the current disaster may prompt as many as 20,000 herders to abandon their nomadic life and flee to the city.

“A lot of the herders have no skills so they usually end up breaking the law and falling into poverty,” said Buyanbadrakh, the governor of a small administrative district, known as a soum, who like some Mongolians uses a single name. He said 70 percent of the livestock in his soum, Zuunbayan-ulaan, were wiped out this year with at least 2,800 families losing their entire herds.

With so many desperate nomads selling off their remaining animals to survive, the price of meat has dropped by half in recent months. “People are taking it very hard,” he said. “Some have gone crazy.”

The disaster poses a challenge to a government already struggling to address the needs of the third of the population that lives in poverty. But it also raises a host of thorny questions about climate change, environmental degradation and whether the pastoral way of life that sustains many of the country’s 3 million people has a future.

Mongolians are fiercely proud of their millenniums-old nomadic ways, best personified by the deification of Genghis Khan, the 13th-century leader whose horseback warriors conquered much of Asia and Eastern Europe. Although mining and tourism are a growing portion of the Mongolian economy, a third of the population still depends entirely on husbandry for its livelihood. “The key question we have to ask is whether this way of life is sustainable,” said Mr. Usmani of the United Nations. “It’s a very sensitive issue.”

Despite the severe winter, one of the more sensitive long-term issues, oddly, is how to curb the explosive growth in livestock, which has quadrupled to 40 million head since the 1990 revolution that ushered in democracy and ended a socialist system that tightly controlled the size of the nation’s herds to prevent overgrazing. Environmentalists and government officials agree that the two decades of unbridled privatization and a boom in cashmere exports upended the traditional mix of livestock, which had long favored sheep over goats.

In the past, sheep made up 80 percent of small-animal herds and goats the rest. But as the price of cashmere soared over the last decade, that ratio reversed, with devastating results for the ecology of the steppe. Voracious eaters, goats often destroy the grass by nibbling at the roots. Their sharp hooves also damage fragile pasture by breaking up the protective tangle of grass and lichens, allowing the wind to sweep away topsoil and encouraging desertification.

The other wildcard is climate change, which many herders blame for the increasingly inhospitable weather. Winters are longer and colder, the winds blow stronger and the summers, they say, are drier. “I don’t know what happened to the mild spring rains that the grass needs to drink,” said Degkhuu, 62, a lifelong herder who lost his entire flock. “Now, when the rains come they are heavy and create flash floods.”

A recent World Bank study found that hundreds of rivers and lakes had disappeared in Mongolia, and the diversity of plant species had plummeted by a third since 1997, although researchers partly blamed the proliferation of goats.

For the moment, the government is focused on clearing the millions of dead animals that litter the grasslands and are beginning to decompose now that spring has finally arrived. A work-for-cash program, financed with a $1.5 million grant from the United Nations, pays herders to gather the carcasses and bury them in pits. It is grim work, but those lucky enough to get a spot on the crews are happy for the income.

At best, the money will only delay a looming crisis among families who have run out of food and are saddled with bank loans they took on to buy emergency feed. Mr. Lkhagvasuren, 34, the herder who lost 1,000 animals, said he owed over $1,800, a huge sum given that the average Mongolian earns $3,200 a year. He said he lost most of his most prized animals — horses, cows and about 200 yaks — and that it would take at least a decade to replenish his herd of goats and sheep, about 100 of which survived.

As he sat in his yurt drinking salty milk tea and smoking tobacco rolled in a strip of newsprint, a crew dragged off the carcasses and heaved them into rickety trucks. “I can’t bear to watch,” he said.

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Building the Mongolian Morin Khuur

The most prominent musical instrument in Mongolia is also the most highly acclaimed and greatly beloved symbol of Mongolian culture. No other instrument holds the place and prominence in Mongolian society as the Morin Khuur which is known as the horse-head fiddle outside of Mongolia. The crafting of the Morin Khuur as depicted in the following photos takes place in stages over several weeks and involves the skills of different specialists.

Unfinished carved Morin Khuur heads.

Finished Morin Khuur head and neck.

Carving the Morin Khuur head.

Crafting the neck of the Morin Khuur.

Preparing the Morin Khuur sound box.

Posted by Mongolian Culture at 9:01 AM 0 comments

Labels: Building the Mongolian Morin Khuur

Monday, October 12, 2009

Khoomei-Taiko Ensemble

World Music Institute presents:

Throat Songs and Drums

Khoomei-Taiko Ensemble

Friday, October 16, 2009 8:00PM

Peter Norton Symphony Space

Broadway at 95th Street

Mongolian, Japanese and US artists come together for a fascinating collaboration, highlighting the popular Mongolian art of khoomei (throat singing) with the driving rhythms of Japanese taiko (drums). The Khoomei-Taiko Ensemble features Shinetsog Dorjnyam (khoomei), Shoji Kameda and Tetsuro Naito (taiko), the legendary folk musician Tserendorj Tseyen (magtaal-praise songs, morin khuur - horsehead fiddle, jaw harp), Kaoru Watanabe (fue and Noh Kan-flutes) and Miki Maruta (koto - zither). The program also includes the captivating voice of Mongolia ’s urtiin duu (long song) vocalist Khongorzul Ganbaatar, a featured artist in Yo-Yo Ma’s Silk Road Project. NY debut.

This program is supported in part by the Trust for Mutual Understanding, the Asian Cultural Council, the Japan Foundation through the Performing Arts JAPAN program, and American Express.

Friday, December 19, 2008

Book review - “ The Role of Women in the Altaic World”

“The Role of Women in the Altaic World” edited by Veronica Veit.
Published by Harrassowitz Verlag, 2007.

The publishing house of Harrassowitz Verlag has released a very important volume of great scholarly value for researchers interested in the role of women in Altaic-nomadic societies from the earliest periods. Titled, “The Role of Women in the Altaic World” this work presents a copious series of well documented essays edited by Veronica Veit. These articles collectively survey a broad range of Altaic nomadic states including Mongol, Turkic, Manchus and the position they historically accorded women – which is refreshingly far more empowered in many instances than those of their sedentary counterparts.

Secenmonke’s article, “The Role of Women in Traditional Mongolian Society” illuminates the mythical monsters in ‘Gesar’s Tale’ which are tamed by the wise sisters of Gesar and provide him “with sense and wisdom in order to appease warfare on earth.” Secenmonke cites passages from the ‘Secret History of the Mongols’ and other historical sources to demonstrate the high status of women in traditional Mongolian society and introduces legendary Mongolian queen-regents Mandukhai Secen and Juggen Khatun who rose to power during periods of crises.

In the article titled, “Compared With the Women the…Menfolk have little Business of their own.” – Gender Division of Labour in the History of the Mongols” by Barbara Frey Naf, we learn about the relatively equal sharing of work duties among Mongol nomads. Naf ‘s contemporary observations made during visits to Mongolia from 1980 to 2001 are counter-balanced by her citations from13th century sources which bear out the importance Mongols placed on women and men having the ability to cooperatively address tasks that range from felt-making, assembling and disassembling gers, herding, butchering animals and calving. The author establishes the central role that Mongol women have historically held and provides them with “ a high degree of self-reliance and to their having a very strong influence on decision-making processes at family level.”

“Manchu Women of the Early Stage: Fantasy and Reality” by Alessandra Pozzi takes us into the world of the Manchu court intrigues and customs from the dynastic founder Nurhaci to Yongzheng. We learn about the Manchu requirement that Manchu royalty had to marry within their own community which also required that after their husband’s death the widow had to “follow in-death” and take their own lives. This custom was finally abolished by the enlightened rule of Emperor Kangxi in 1688 who also put in place several other reforms that were iconoclastic and farsighted. The powerful role of Manchu women was probably best epitomized by the Empress Dowager Cixi who dominated the Manchu court till 1908.

Mark I. Gol’man’s article “The Mongolian Women in the Russian Archives of the XVIIth Century” unveils a treasure trove of historical gems that document the prominent involvement of Mongolian noblewomen in Mongol-Russian diplomatic interplay. These documents are being published by the Institute of Oriental Studies of the Russian Academy of Sciences in four volumes and cover the period from 1667 to 1756.

Beginning with Secin Khatun (Nomakhu Holaci), the mother of Altan Khan the Mongol sovereign who ruled till 1657, Gol’man depicts the elaborate reception she provided to all Russian envoys traveling to the Mongol rulers’ court. In one instance when a Russian envoy named Drushina Ogarkov showed her disrespect she had the Czar punish and publicly whip Ogarkov followed by his imprisonment in Tobolsk. The Secin Khatun was not only present at important political negotiations with the Russian delegations but she also advised Altan Khan during these proceedings and apparently influenced his stance that Mongolia remain independent in the face of Russian pressure.

Gol’man brings home the critically important role that Mongol queen-regents played in political history including Altan Khan’s wife Akhai Khatun who negotiated directly with the Russian envoys after Altan Khan’s death. She declined a Russian proposal to make the Mongol court a subject of the Moscow Czar, “declaring proudly that the Mongol rulers and Mongol people had never been anyone’s subordinates.”

“The Role of Women in the Altaic World” is heartily recommended for its depth of spirited scholarship on this important subject which provides essential perspective and understanding of the tumultuous and vibrant dynamics of Altaic societies gender relations.

Monday, August 18, 2008

Mongolia Wins its First Olympics Gold Medal
Tuvshinbayar Naidan after Winning Olympics Gold

BEIJING (AP) — Mongolia won its first gold medal in Olympic history Thursday, with Tuvshinbayar Naidan beating Kazakhstan's Askhat Zhitkeyev in men's 100-kilogram judo.

Naidan, who upset Athen's Olympic champion Keiji Suzuki of Japan in his opening bout, scored a waza ari with just under two minutes remaining, then added on two yuko to seal the victory.

Thursday, July 10, 2008

A Child Jockey’s Rise on the Steppes of Mongolia

A Child Jockey’s Rise on the Steppes of Mongolia


Published by The New York Times July 11, 2008
Children as young as five ride in horse races in Mongolia. Jockeys at a race in Khui Doloon Khudag, Mongolia.

Photo by Shiho Fukada for The New York Times

KHUI DOLOON KHUDAG, Mongolia — The boy rode the stallion in a trot around the camp, cooling it down after a long gallop across the steppe. He was humming his favorite Mongolian hip-hop songs, by groups like Tartar, Flash and Guy 666.
Nearby, in the family’s round felt tent, the boy’s father ran a wire from a satellite dish to a big-screen television. His mother paced around in high-heeled boots.

“When I’m in the city, I miss my horses,” the boy, Munkherdene, 13, said. “When I’m in the countryside, I miss my friends and games. I really miss my PlayStation.”

Such is the life of a city slicker turned child jockey in the wilds of Mongolia.

Munkherdene and his family, who like most people here go by their given names, are among a growing number of Mongolians from the traffic-choked capital, Ulan Bator, trying to get back to their nomadic roots. The boy’s father is a successful businessman, importing electronics, bicycles and mining equipment from Japan. But like many affluent Mongolians these days, he also breeds racehorses.

“This summer, I was going to send him to Singapore to improve his English,” the father, Enkhbayar, 49, said of his son. “But he decided to stay with me to help with the horses.”

Horse racing is becoming an industry across the same Central Asian steppes where Genghis Khan and his warrior hordes once galloped. The biggest race of the year takes place this weekend 30 miles west of the capital.

It is part of the annual Naadam Festival, a gathering that matters more to Mongolians than the Olympics. Children as young as 5 ride in races that can be dangerous, with hundreds of horses thundering across the open plain at once, running at speeds approaching 50 miles per hour. All told, more than 1,800 horses will race over the weekend.

As the competition intensifies, businessmen are importing larger horses from foreign lands to breed with the small Mongolian horses, the prize money is getting heftier and owners are transporting horses to competitions in trucks and trailers rather than riding them.

Other traditions are changing, too. Horse racing is among what Mongolians call the “three manly sports”(alongside wrestling and archery), but female jockeys have started to appear.

At its heart, though, horse racing is still as rustic an experience here as drinking fermented mare’s milk, and as deeply embedded in the culture.

Munkherdene and Enkhbayar spend their summers traveling across the country from race to race, sleeping in the family’s richly appointed traditional tent, or ger, one that cost thousands of dollars and elicits approving looks from passers-by.

“The best thing is the air, and horse riding, and when it rains,” Munkherdene said one evening, as a double rainbow arced across the plains following a twilight thunderstorm.

The family drove out to the electric-green grasslands of the raceground on Tuesday from their apartment in Ulan Bator. For this occasion they set up two gers, one for sleeping and another for cooking. Their eight racehorses were tethered to posts, brought here by a half-dozen men hired as trainers.

The family owns more than 100 horses, which they keep in Tov, a rural province that surrounds Ulan Bator. The horses graze on property where Enkhbayar’s grandparents once lived. His father, who worked in the capital for a state-run publishing house, took him there during the summers, teaching him to ride and care for the animals.

Now he is doing the same for his son.

“Horse owners usually don’t let their sons or daughters race their horses,” Enkhbayar said. “But I let my son start racing three years ago. It’s important to have him inherit the knowledge of horses from me. He’ll continue to train horses.”

When a cold wind blows across these plains, as it does even in the summer, Enkhbayar puts on a thick brown robe called a del. A broad man with a dark, creased face and a wispy goatee, he could play the lead role in a biopic of Genghis Khan.
“Now, there are lots of differences between city and country people,” he said. “For example, my son’s classmates want to ride horses in the countryside, but they’ve never tried before. They’re like foreigners because they don’t understand animals.”

Enkhbayar, a father of four, watched as Munkherdene jumped off the stallion and hitched it to a post. He seems like any 13-year-old boy from any world capital. Last month, he stayed up late to watch matches of the Euro 2008 soccer tournament. He wears a red Manchester United shirt. His favorite PlayStation games are NBA Street and FIFA Street.

Munkherdene turned away in disgust one night when a man slaughtered a goat and a sheep outside the family’s kitchen ger. Every teenage boy in the countryside learns how to do this.

“I’ve never done it,” he said. “Sometimes I even want to beat the man doing it.”

His family is one of dozens that set up gers at midweek here, on the raceground called Khui Doloon Khudag, which means Navel of the Seven Wells.

Some of the families are nomads arriving from hundreds of miles away with simple plastic tents and one or two racehorses. Others bring dozens of horses and erect elaborate gers larger than a typical Manhattan studio apartment. (They take several hours to set up.) By Thursday, the place had become the Mongolian equivalent of a state fairground. There were restaurant gers and souvenir gers and trading gers.

Until the 20th century, horses were in the blood of all Mongolians. Their language has more than 70 words to describe the animals’ coloring. When a great horse dies, its skull is placed atop a cairn on a mountain, and Mongolians make offerings at those sites. Mongolian horses are short and stubby, but that is exactly what helped Genghis Khan conquer half the known world. His warriors could leap on and off their horses in the middle of battle. They also learned to whirl around and shoot arrows while riding away from their enemies.

“My friends always ask me so many questions about horses,” Munkherdene said. “I was 8 or 9 when I first rode a horse. I was very eager to ride a horse, and if someone didn’t let me ride, I’d cry. My father had fast horses, racing horses, and I’d gallop on them. My father would get very angry.”

A racehorse costs anywhere from $300 to more than $80,000, Enkhbayar said. One of his favorite horses is Jiinst, the stallion that Munkherdene was riding. Jiinst’s father was a prize-winning stallion, and Enkhbayar bought Jiinst for breeding purposes when the horse was just 2 years old.

Some businessmen buy larger horses from abroad — Russia, the Arabian Peninsula, Pakistan, China — for breeding purposes. “We have a belief that stallions and mares, if they’re from far away, they’ll produce fast horses,” he said. “So it doesn’t matter if horses are from foreign countries. But the problem with foreign horses is taking care of them in the winter.”

Prize money can be big by Mongolian standards. The top prize at Naadam is 1,000,000 togrog, or $870. Prizes at smaller, more select competitions can be even larger — a sport utility vehicle, for instance.

Enkhbayar said his horses had won more than 10 medals. Half are pinned to a swatch of red cloth he keeps in the ger. None of the 10 were won by his son, however.

On Tuesday night, while munching on sheep organs, Enkhbayar was weighing whether to let his son race this weekend. Had Munkherdene grown too heavy? Would he slow the horse down?

The next morning brought more concerns. A heavy rainstorm had swept across the plain. Enkhbayar and his horsemen threw plastic tarpaulins over the eight racehorses.

“If it rains a lot, I worry,” he said. “The horses could catch cold. Their noses might run.”

The normal training routine is to gallop the horses once a day to make them break a sweat. Heavy rains can prevent that, and it had rained seven of the last nine days. By midafternoon, blue sky began peeking through the clouds. And Enkhbayar had decided that Munkherdene would ride in what was likely to be his last chance to race in Naadam.

“If I place in the top five, I’ll be so happy,” Munkherdene said. “Maybe I’ll cry.”

Enkhbayar had other hopes. Next year, he said, his 4-year-old son would start learning to ride.

Thursday, May 15, 2008

Siberian, Native American Languages Linked -- A First

Siberian, Native American Languages Linked -- A First

From National Geographic News

John Roach
for National Geographic News

March 26, 2008

Since at least 1923 researchers have suggested a connection exists between Asian and North American languages—but this is the first time a link has been demonstrated with established standards, said Vajda, who has studied the relationship for more than 15 years.
Previous researchers had provided lists of similar-sounding and look-alike words, but their methods were unscientific. Such similarities, Vajda noted, are likely to be dismissed as coincidence even if they represent genuine evidence.
So Vajda developed another method. "I'm providing a whole system of [similar] vocabulary and also of grammatical parallels—the way that verb prefixes are structured," he said.

Dying Tongue

His research links the Old World language family of Yeniseic in central Siberia with the Na-Dene family of languages in North America.
The Yeniseic family includes the extinct languages Yugh, Kott, Assan, Arin, and Pumpokol. Ket is the only Yeniseic language spoken today. Less than 200 speakers remain and most are over 50, according to Vajda.
"Within a couple of generations, Ket will probably become extinct," he said.

The Na-Dene family includes languages spoken by the broad group of Athabaskan tribes in the U.S. and Canada as well as the Tlingit and Eyak people. The last Eyak speaker died in January. Vajda presented the findings in February at a meeting of linguists at the Alaska Native Language Center in Fairbanks. Vajda established the Yeniseic-Na-Dene link by looking for languages with a verb-prefix system similar to those in Yeniseic languages. Such prefixes are unlike any other language in North Asia. "Only Na-Dene languages have a system of verb prefixes that very closely resemble the Yeniseic," he said.

From there, Vajda found several dozen cognates—or words in different languages that sound alike and have the same meaning.
The results dovetail with earlier work by Merritt Ruhlen, an anthropologist at Stanford University in California who Vajda said discovered the first genuine Na-Dene-Yeniseic cognates. Vajda also showed how these cognates have sound correspondences. "I systematically connect these structures in Yeniseic with the structures in modern Na-Dene," Vajda said. "My comparisons aren't just lists of some look-alike words … I show there is a system behind it."

Marina Irikova, who lives in Kellog village in Siberia, is one of only 200 people who still speak Ket, part of an Old World language family called Yeniseic.

Johanna Nichols is a linguist at the University of California in Berkeley who attended the Alaska meeting where Vajda presented his research.
With the exception of the Eskimo-Aleut family that straddles the Bering Strait and Aleutian Islands, this is "the first successful demonstration of any connection between a New World language and an Old World language," Nichols said.

Mother Tongue

Vajda said his research puts linguistics on the same stage as archaeology, anthropology, and genetics when it comes to studying the history of humans in North Asia and North America. However, the research has not revealed which language came first. Neither modern Ket nor Na-Dene languages in North America represent the mother tongue.

For example, some words in the Na-Dene family likely represent sounds of the mother tongue more closely than their Yeniseic cognates. Other words in Yeniseic, however, are probably more archaic. Based on archaeological evidence of human migrations across the Bering land bridge, the language link may extend back at least 10,000 years.

If true, according to Vajda, this would be the oldest known demonstrated language link.
But more research is needed to determine when the languages originated and how they became a part of various cultures before such a claim will be accepted, according to UC Berkeley linguist Nichols.
"I don't think there is any reason to assume the connection is [10,000 years] old … this must surely be one late episode in a much longer and more complicated history of settlement," she said.

Sunday, March 16, 2008


" MY BEAUTIFUL JINJIIMAA " Directed by Ochir Mashbat.

"My Beautiful Jinjimaa" is a moving, emotional Mongolian film about the deep love and great sacrifices of a handicapped man for the love of a woman and her child. "My Beautiful Jinjimaa" takes us into the life of a Mongol family struggling with the harsh emotional realities of personal tragedy while trying to preserve their fragile existence in the extreme cold of Mongolia's bitter winter.

This well directed film by Ochir Mashbat, epitomizes the new Mongolian cinema which address the social divisions between modern urban Mongolians and the traditional values of Mongol nomadic culture. The main actors Natsagdorj Battsetseg, Purevdorj Tserendagva, and Dorjgotov Gantsetseg draw out strong emotion with their compassionate expressions of enduring love.

Thursday, March 6, 2008

Khadak DVD Released on March 4th, 2008


Scene from Khadak

Scene from Khadak

The 'Khadak' DVD was officially released on March 4th, 2008.
'Khadak' has already won important honors internationally including Batzul Khayankhyarvaa and Tsetsegee Byamba who has just won Best Actor and Best Actress in Singapore at the First Asian Films Festival on December 4th. Tsetsegee was in attendance and received the Swarovski statues on stage at the Raffles Hotel.

'Khadak' Website:

Thursday, February 28, 2008

Mongolian Art Lecture at Rubin Museum of Art - March 6th, 2008

"Ger" by Tsegmed, 2002

The Rubin Museum of Art will present a lecture titled, "Nomadic art of the Mongols" by Orna Uranchimeg-Tsultem on Thursday, March 6, 2008 at 1:00pm. Orna Uranchimeg-Tsultem's specialty is the art of Mongolia and Tibet.

She studied the modern art of Mongolia prior to her present PhD studies at UC Berkeley. As an assistant professor at the Mongolian University of Arts and Culture, she has curated Mongolian exhibitions internationally and published on Mongolian modern art. Since 2002, she has been the curator of the largest existing collection of Mongolian modern art, at the Khan Bank in Mongolia. She is currently a PhD candidate in History of Art at UC Berkeley.

This event is free with admission to RMA, and free for RMA Members.

Location: Rubin Museum of Art
150 West 17th Street
New York, NY 10011

Event Date/Time: Thursday, March 6, 2008 at 1:00pm to 2:00pm.

Wednesday, February 27, 2008

Mongol Cultural Impact on Hollywood and Entertainment Media

The impact of Mongol culture and history on modern popular culture can be seen in several instances in contemporary art, Hollywood films, literature, news media, video games and other arenas of popular culture.

From the borrowing of traditional Mongolian costumes, facial makeup and hairstyles by George Lucas and costume designer Trisha Biggar for the Star Wars films to video games based on Chinggis Khan and his conquests, Mongolian culture and history occupies a distinct place in modern cultural history.

Genghis Khan Video Game circa 1989
Chinggis Khan inspired Nintendo platform video game by Koei Corp., Japan.

Genghis Khan II Video Game circa 1994
Sega Genesis platform video game by Koei Corp., Japan.

Director George Lucas was inspired by Mongolian traditional regal hair-styles, facial makeup and costume designs which his costume designer, Trisha Biggar, then incorporated into the costume, makeup and hair-style designs for the Star Wars film character Queen Amidala.,++painted+by+Sonomtseren+circa+1900.jpg

Portrait of the wife of nobleman Nasantogtokh by Sonomtseren, circa 1900.

Natalie Portman as Queen Amidala in Star Wars film.,+Maidar+Procession,+1922.jpg

Mongolian princesses in Maidar celebration in Mongolia, circa 1900. AMNH Library.

Natalie Portman as Queen Amidala in Star Wars film.

Two Mongolian Women looking a Magazine, Forty Miles north of Urga, 2nd Expedition, Photo by Yvette Borup Andrews, 1919, AMNH Library.

Friday, February 22, 2008

Mongol Cultural Impact on Modern Art and Culture

The impact of Mongol culture and history on modern popular culture can be seen in several instances in contemporary art, Hollywood films, literature, news media, video games and other arenas of popular culture.From the borrowing of traditional Mongolian costumes, facial makeup and hairstyles by George Lucas and costume designer Trisha Biggar for the Star Wars films to book jacket covers by designer Tibor Kalman, Mongolian culture and history occupies a distinct place in modern cultural history.
Advertisement for Brunello Cucinelli

Book cover, title "(Un) FASHION"

by Tibor Kalman and Maira Kalman.

Published by Harry Abrams
ISBN: 0-8109-9229-9

This book titled, " (un) FASHION " by Tibor Kalman and Maira Kalman is a global photographic survey of native fashion-sense and presents indigenous peoples from almost every corner of the planet dressed in traditional costumes in their cultural context.

Tibor Kalman was considered a design genius in his time, whose fascination with the creative ways people around the world choose to adorn themselves is vividly on display in this book, and on the book cover, which shows a Mongol couple dressed in traditional Mongol del looking quite stylish in the Gobi desert.

Artwork titled: "Cry Dragon/Cry Wolf: The Ark of Genghis Khan"

Artist: Cai Guo-Qaing

Shown in 1996 at the Guggenheim Museum in New York City.

Materials: 108 sheepskin bags, wooden branches, paddles, rope, 9 Toyota engines, cover page and excerpts from periodicals.

Dimensions: 350 x 1986 x 261 cm

( This artwork was comprised of ) “a gigantic boat made of logs and inflated sheepskins ineffectually powered by a brace of Toyota engines. Cross-wiring temporal references to conjure all manner of Asian invasions - from the Mongols, who used similar sheepskin devices to ford rivers, to Japanese cars - this dragon's immobility belied its roar, though its grandiose scale amounted to a sort of theatrical efficacy. Unfortunately, the circus-like ambiance of the exhibition as a whole emphasized that grandiosity rather than the work's humor or bizarre material presence.”

Quote from Barry Schwabsky on Highbeam Encyclopedia, 1997.

Monday, January 28, 2008

The Tofa People

Tofalaria - The Land of the Tofa People

The Tofa are an ancient minority people living across from the northern-most parts of Mongolia between Tuva and Buryatia. Numbering only a few hundred now, the Tofa as a people might become obsolete within the next decade according to some scholars. Their language in now spoken only by a few dozen elderly Tofa and will most likely die out with them. The ancient Tofa traditions of herding reindeer and hunting for food and hides is part of a way of life that has reached the end of its road in a final meeting with modernity.

Tofa Hunter, photo by Vladimir Sorin
Photo courtesy: Cultural Survival Quarterly

Wednesday, December 19, 2007

' Kiran Over Mongolia ' - New York City Screening December 22nd, 2007

'Kiran Over Mongolia' Screening December 22nd, 2007

Scandinavia House will present a screening of 'Kiran Over Mongolia' on December 22nd 2007 at 5:30 pm.

Director Joseph Spaid will introduce his film which has been garnered much praise in its showings around the world.

There will also be a live bird of prey demonstration along with a Kazakh folk instrument performance.

'Kiran Over Mongolia' website:

The event location is Scandinavia House, 58 Park Avenue at 37th Street.

Sunday, September 30, 2007

Mongolian Film 'Khadak' Opening in New York City, October 12th, 2007


An important upcoming Mongolian cultural event this fall is the opening of the award winning Mongolian film KHADAK in New York City on Oct. 12th, Chicago on Oct. 19th, Seattle on Nov. 2, and San Francisco on Nov. 9th, with more dates to follow. See below for synopsis and info, more available at

Set in the frozen steppes of Mongolia, KHADAK is a magical-realist fable, which tells the epic story of Bagi (Batzul Khayankhyarvaa,) a young nomad shepherd who confronts his destiny to become a shaman. After a plague strikes their herd, Bagi and his family are relocated to a mining town. There, he saves the life of Zolzaya (Tsetsegee Byamba,) a beautiful performer/coal thief. When Bagi discovers that the plague was a government lie fabricated to eradicate nomadic life, he and Zolzaya incite a revolution. Bagi's shaman powers help rally his people, but will they ever be able to return to their former lives?

Documentarian Peter Brosens is known for his internationally acclaimed Mongolia trilogy (CITY OF THE STEPPES, STATE OF DOGS, and POETS OF MONGOLIA), which screened at over 100 festivals including Venice and Toronto. Also trained in documentary filmmaking, Jessica Woodworth’s first film, URGA SONG, was shot in Mongolia. It was followed by Morocco-shot THE VIRGIN DIARIES, which was nominated for the FIPRESCI Award by the International Documentary Film Association. KHADAK is their first feature film.

Saturday, September 15, 2007

The Historical Role of Women in Mongolian Society and Culture
Cover Photo from 1980' Pamphlet titled, "Women of The Socialist Mongolia"

The role of Mongolian women in Mongolian society and culture has been prominent in large part due to the need for sharing the Mongolian nomadic life style's strenuous herding and household workloads in an extreme climate. Mongolian women have been known historically for their physical strength, bravery, and devotion to family.

From the earliest Mongolian history available to us we can see the deep bond between Mongolian women and their children. In the most important Mongolian historical account available to us, 'The Secret History of the Mongols' written in the thirteenth century, we can read of numerous episodes in the life of Chigghis Khan and his family where the actions of his mother and wife were pivotal to his life and those of his descendants.

Chinggis Khan's deep love and respect for his wife Borte is depicted through the telling of several historical passages in 'The Secret History of the Mongols'. We see the powerful influence of Khubilai Khan's mother in his development and eventual rise to power and rule over all China.

During the period when Mongolia was under Soviet influence, Mongolian women had good access to education and training in many fields including areas which were the traditional sphere's of male dominance. Mongolian women today are prominent in many fields including,science, government, education, international relations, and business.